As someone concerned with food choices, you probably line your holiday table with organic sweet potatoes, greens from your garden and bread from a local baker. It might be time to take your sustainable-food commitment a step further this year with a responsibly raised turkey for Thanksgiving. This poultry is pricier than the confinement-produced turkeys you find at the grocery store, but there are reasons to consider making the switch that you might weigh heavier than price.
Let’s Define Responsibly Raised
Your definition of a “responsibly raised” turkey might differ from those of some of your relatives—and if they’ve traditionally been the ones to provide the Thanksgiving turkey, you might have some convincing to do. Gillian March, co-founder of the fair-food organization Vital Awareness, defines a responsibly raised turkey as “one that is free-roaming on pasture, engaging in its natural behaviors—pecking, scratching and foraging for insects and eating an omnivorous diet.”
Additionally, she says, slow-growing heritage-breed turkeys—think Bourbon Reds and Jersey Buffs—are a better choice over the commercial Broad-Breasted White, as the commercial variety has been developed over time to grow a large breast extremely fast. It’s body, frame and organs cannot support this type of growth, and therefore, it’s confined and doesn’t thrive well on pasture.
Knowing that you purchased a turkey that was raised as turkeys exist in nature is a good enough reason for some people. Others want pasture-raised turkeys for their richer flavor—meat is influenced by the animal’s diet. And more people reach for turkeys not raised in confinement because of concerns over unnecessary antibiotic use in industrially farmed poultry.
Further setting apart heritage-breed birds from commercial-breed birds, the heritage meat is a darker color, and the birds tend to be smaller, which, March points out, can lead to less waste.
Depending on where you live, whether you’re going for a heritage-breed turkey or a commercial breed that’s been carefully managed on pasture, and who you purchase from, the price per pound and the size of a responsibly raised turkey varies. Heritage-breed turkeys are generally smaller but more costly than commercial breeds, so the cost could work out the same in the end. You should not be surprised to spend $100 on your responsibly raised Thanksgiving turkey. This is quite a difference from the free national-brand turkey that you might get as a bonus giveaway for loyally shopping at your grocery store. March explains the reasons for this difference:
- Growth Period: “[Heritage turkeys] are slower growing and will require more feed to get them from day-old poults to market.”
- Space Requirements: “It takes a lot more land to responsibly raise turkeys.”
- Startup Costs: “Heritage poults are more expensive to buy than commercial poults.”
- Economy of Scale: “There are fewer processing facilities for pastured poultry, so the overall processing costs are much higher for the pastured-turkey farmers. General economies of scale allow the larger commercial producers to keep their costs down.”
- Predation: “Responsibly raised turkeys are exposed to predators, so a farmer can experience more losses from his flock to predation.”
Track Down That Turkey
You can’t walk into a typical chain grocery store and find a responsibly raised turkey, so it takes a little research to get the bird you want. Look to your local farmers first, of course. You can talk to them about how they raise their turkeys. You can probably find farmers who raise turkeys at your local farmers market, co-op grocery store, natural-foods store, or through a listing on EatWild.com or LocalHarvest.com.
“Also, a good place to start is The Livestock Conservancy, as they list the heritage-breed farmers, state by state. One can search out a farmer by location and place an order directly from the farm or from their retail outlet,” March says.
When purchasing turkey through a grocery store, March says to look for the Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane labels. At Whole Foods Market, their Global Animal Partnership rating system lets you know how animals were raised—March says level 4 and higher is what you want.
Responsibly raised turkeys aren’t in oversupply like conventionally raised turkeys usually are (though in 2015, conventionally raised turkeys aren’t, either, because of the population damage from avian influenza). You need to act early if you’re interested in sourcing a pasture-raised turkey—as much as two to three months before the holiday if you’re purchasing from a local farmer, March suggests, and two to three weeks ahead of time from other sources.
As you’re giving thanks this year, consider and the people and the resources that go into producing your food. “Thanksgiving is about gratitude, which for me includes mindfulness—purchasing a responsibly raised turkey is about paying mind to the way the bird has been raised and supporting those methods which are mindful of not only the welfare of the bird but the environment,” March says. “It is about supporting those farmers who are paying mind to their responsibility as stewards of the land and farm animals.”